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  • Civic Play-Housekeeping: Gender, Theatre, and American Reform
  • Shannon Jackson (bio)

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Figure 1.

Program for The Marionette Club’s production of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”

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Figure 2.

“Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” 1920.

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Figure 3.

Saturday dance class in Bowen Hall, circa 1930.

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Figure 4.

Childrens’ rehearsal at Hull-House, 1910.

“We went to Hull-House every Saturday for Miss Nancrede’s dance classes,” Dorothy Mittelman Sigel’s eyes held mine as she spoke. “And after every class we would line up on our way out the door . . . and . . . you know . . . as we went out . . . ‘Thank you, Miss Nancrede.’”

During the ellipses in her speech, Mrs. Sigel rose carefully and spoke in another language, that of the body. Despite a foot that was still recovering from surgery, this former Hull-House child got up to demonstrate how she and her fellow Marionette Club members bowed and curtsied in a ritualized performance for their favorite Hull-House club leader, Edith de Nancrede.

Dorothy Mittelman, later Dorothy Mittelman Sigel, now the widow of Louis Sigel, was born in 1900 in an immigrant neighborhood in the Nineteenth Ward of Chicago’s West Side soon after her parents emigrated to the United States. She now lives alone in the Winnetka home she and her husband bought when the success of Louis Sigel’s business allowed them to move to Chicago’s wealthier North Shore. And it is to this home that I go to hear Mrs. Sigel’s stories of her life in turn-of-the-century Chicago and of the impact that one particular institution, the Hull-House Settlement, made on the course and character of that life.

Mrs. Sigel raised and lowered her body, extending her hand in a gesture that was at once graceful after years of cultivation and unsteady after 95 years of living. “Thank you, Miss Nancrede,” she said again, now lifting her head to hold the eyes of an imaginary teacher whose eyes had once held hers.

The Hull-House Settlement of Chicago—which Dorothy attended and where Edith de Nancrede lived and worked—was a social phenomenon that was both exemplary of and unique to the period in which it was founded. 1 During the early parts of the [End Page 337] Progressive Era—the time spanning from the late-nineteenth century to World War I—various social and political groups in American society began self-consciously to contend with the urban, industrial, political, and cultural transformations brought on by structural forces that could no longer be ignored. 2 Unmonitored housing and city zoning and unregulated factory and sweatshop systems combined to collide with a huge wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (including Dorothy Mittelman’s family), thereby profoundly changing the nature of urban social life and testing the limits of America’s much-touted system of democratic governance. While some hereditary Americans reacted to urban dilemmas by blaming convenient scapegoats such as union laborers, anarchists, and immigrants, others began to form partial critiques of the structural forces that precipitated these changes as well as the transformations—in the nature of the city, the role of the state, and the concept of America—that would be necessary to respond to them. Activist and reform groups gathered around different causes—housing, factory reform, public parks, temperance, immigration protection, food and clothing for the poor—and were propelled by different principles—religious, political, and intellectual. That this era has been retroactively historicized as “The Reform Period” attests to its fundamental place in the institutional and intellectual history of social welfare in the United States, and it is often placed as the origin point for a host of civic, state, and federal agencies in existence—-and hotly debated—-in our present-day society.

This essay is in part an attempt to theorize the relationship between highly local and intimate moments such as those recounted by Dorothy Mittelman Sigel and the large network of national and industrial forces charted in the historiography of the Progressive Era. I suggest that the arena of theatre and...

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